How Do You Get On The Board?

In the wake of the Columbus (OH) Symphony Orchestra board chair resigning due investigations by the SEC, Connie from Columbus wrote in to ask:



“How do people get on an orchestra board?”


What a great question. The answer has been the subject of numerous books, scholarly papers, and articles for the past century.


But before I digress, I’ll do my best to provide an academic answer (special thanks to a few of one of my inside friends for their help with this answer). 


Keep in mind these answers are only generalities as each orchestra board creates their own set of bylaws governing board membership.


The Short Answer
People get on an orchestra board by having connections to large amounts of money and knowing other people that are already connected to the orchestra board.


The Long Answer
An orchestra board is a legal entity whose behavior is controlled by its own bylaws. These bylaws dictate all functions related to the board’s governance of the orchestra; such as how meetings are run, appointment of officers or executive members, committee structure, and how to become a member.  Board membership must also be public knowledge.


Typically, an orchestra board will establish a Nominating Committee, complete with its own chairperson.  The remainder of the committee is made up of other board members and sometimes a few honorary non members invited from the local community.


The Nominating Committee has the responsibility of finding potential candidates to serve on the orchestra board.  Once the committee establishes a list of candidates they invite those individuals to become board members. 


Any individual can approach their local orchestra and ask the Nominating Committee to  consider them as a board member, but the final decision to invite the individual still rests with the members of the Nomination Committee (along with some strong “final blessings” from the board’s executive officers).


In the end, orchestra board members are self selected.  As a result, much of it comes down to who you know (see “The Short Answer” above).


The Double Edged Sword
This system produces both positive and negative results.  Ideally, the existing members of a board are connected to a local community at high levels of political, financial, and social circles.


But these groups aren’t always much different than the social cliques we knew from High School.  And although business can otherwise bring together strange bedfellows, human nature still divides most people into a caste system.


This is good when the existing members of a board are connected into a wide variety of these community cliques.  It assures that the orchestra’s governing body is represented by a multifaceted level of community interests.  Smart, successful, forward thinking people tend to hang out together so the more of them that currently serve on the board will assure that others like them will continue to serve in the future.


But the bad side of this system is that board membership can begin to represent only a few of these mid level cliques in a community.  If too many members of a board are all from the same social or business circle they can deliberately keep their rivals off the board.  The orchestra essentially becomes ground in a “turf war”.


This makes finding donations and generating interest throughout a community more difficult. In some cases, big money won’t donate at all simply because of the people currently sitting in the executive chairs of the orchestra’s board.


Not only will the orchestra lose out on these potential big donors in the here and now, but may very well keep them away in the future even after the board’s membership has changed (grudges and hard feelings usually last a LONG time).


In the worst case scenarios, board members will monopolize the make up of a board in order to use the organization for their own personal gain.  These abuses can run rampant, board members can; guaranteed business contracts go to their company or those owned by their friends, hand out jobs in the orchestra’s administration to cronies, use the orchestra to motivate local politicians to endorse public programs that will also benefit their personal business, etc.


Ideally, an orchestra will have an executive director or a long standing board member that serves as a sort of watchdog capable of bringing peace to a bad situation and ensure that no board members are abusing their position in the organization.


I hope that answers Connie’s question for her.  There’s quite a bit more to the answer but that’s about all I can take of this subject in one sitting.  So I’ll save the rest for another day. But if you really want something more to read, then stop by the Orchestra Board essay I have available to the right.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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